Americans perhaps too often ask
the question "What's next?" The high rate of divorce and the native
restlessness is all too evident in literature and society. It might
explain why the contract of Kurt Masur with the New York Philharmonic
was not extended. Replacing a conductor at the top of his game just
when he was moving to "living legend" status seems a grievous error
given his masterful reading of the symphonies of Beethoven with the
Orchestre National de France. There have been some successful long-term
musical marriages in America, notably George Szell with the Cleveland
Orchestra and Solti in Chicago but these are the exception.
Kurt Masur is clearly one of the
great conductors still working and the audience in Paris appreciates
what chance has given them. His concerts are already a hot ticket, even
though he has only appeared in his new role as Music Director a handful
of times. He has clearly made his mark with the orchestra and their
playing has a commitment and passion not always in evidence in recent
years. His Beethoven has plenty of bite and power, weighty in the Central
European tradition, and is played with richness and measured balance.
A giant of a man and a giant artist,
the radio audiences can certainly hear his foot stomping and sometimes
guttural groans which urge them on. The strings play like they are possessed
and the woodwinds manfully rise to the occasion. It is only in the brass
section that the inattention to quality in recent years is most apparent.
Their struggle to play the music is painfully obvious and this weakness
will need major surgery for the orchestra to achieve its promise.
Masur has the rare privilege to
be the first to perform the symphony cycle in the newly published critical
edition from Breitkopf & Härtel. He has said, in published
interviews, that he has found new clarity, particularly in the Fourth
and Sixth Symphonies. His reading of both of these symphonies revealed
a lightness of touch and a musical grace that is new. He plays all the
repeats and his unidiomatic, serious approach simply elevates the musical
dialogue. Here is Beethoven's music, with all the power and rhythmic
force where you expect it. When you slide into your seat at the Thèâtre
des Champs-Elysèes for these concerts, you know that his feeling
for these works will fit with the composer's intent like an old, comfortable
glove. Hearing all these symphonies, played in order, was to experience
unforced exhilaration. After a while, the purple prose of Berlioz's
flamboyant musings on this music, contained in the program, seemed more
and more to be a measured assessment of this glory.
The concluding Ninth Symphony was
an example of the dedicated music making that went into this project.
A quartet of extraordinary talent was assembled and placed to the left
of the maestro, stage front. The inestimable bass Hans Sotin was the
first heard and was in magnificent vocal estate. Seemingly ageless -
his career spans some 40 years on stage - he delivered his exhortations
with a fine feel for the words and their underlying power. Donald Litaker
was also the outstanding tenor of all I have heard in live concerts
of this symphony by Bernstein, von Karajan, Haitink and others. Soprano
Christine Brewer, most recently heard as the Ariadne at Châtelet
last season, handled her awesome musical task with unforced clarity
and power. Sylvie Brunet was the splendid mezzo-soprano.
The choir was accurate and, with
some encouragement, sang with rich strength. Not of the same level of
that of the chorus of the Orchestre de Paris, founded by the recently
retired master Arthur Oldham, it is still of first rank. The orchestra
is still becoming acquainted with their new leader, as seen in the infrequent
ragged attacks. His downbeat is sometimes not clear but, after a season
or two, they will learn to breathe together. It is an auspicious musical
beginning and one can only wait with anticipation his Mendelssohn cycle
coming in February.